A Handful of Genetic Changes Make Cancer

The BBC reports that a handful of changes to your genetic code will make cancer.  This is incredible news, imagine the fact that only one genetic mutation to your genetic code is responsible for your generating cancer in your body – that is exactly what researchers reported:

  • just one mutation to drive thyroid and testicular cancers;
  • a mere four mutations to make a breast or liver cancer; and
  • a smattering of 10 mutations to create a colorectal cancer.

If you are not thrown back into your chair right now – you have to be brain dead – perhaps you have a genetic mutation.  Anyways, this research is simply incredible from my perspective.  Especially when you understand that you have a degree of control over your genetic expression through your epigenome – that’s right you have a great deal of control over your own genetic mutation.

According to the press release published by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, who sponsored this ground breaking research, the research team catalogued the main cancer genes responsible for 29 different cancer types. Researchers also discovered several new cancer genes and determined how complete the current lists of cancer genes are.

“We have addressed a long-standing question in cancer research that has been debated since the 1950s: how many mutations are needed for a normal cell to turn into a cancer cell? The answer is – a small handful. For example, about four mutations per patient on average drive liver cancers, whereas colorectal cancers typically require 10 or so driver mutations.” Dr Peter Campbell, lead author on the study.

“In the study, we revealed that around half of these key mutations driving cancer occur in genes that are not yet identified as cancer genes. There is already much insight into the most important genes involved in cancer; but there are many more genes yet to be discovered. We will need to bring together even larger numbers of cancers studied by DNA sequencing, into the tens of thousands, to find these elusive genes.” Dr Inigo Martincorena, first author on the study

[box] “We now know of hundreds of genes, that when mutated, drive cancer. This research shows that across cancer types a relatively consistent small number of such mutated genes is required to convert a single normal cell into a cancer cell, but that the specific genes chosen differ according to cancer type. The study also shows that we have not yet identified many of these driver genes and they will be the target for further searching in the future. This increasingly precise understanding of the underlying changes that result in cancer provides the foundation for the discovery and use of targeted therapies that treat the disease.” Professor Sir Mike Stratton, an author of the study and director[/box]

The new methods from this study are a step forward in personalized medicine as techniques are developed to identify the specific mutations responsible for cancer, among the thousands of mutations that are typically found in each tumor.

Why genes mutate, when the underlying genetic codes is not mutated, is the basis of epigenetics.  No wonder epigenetics has become a hot topic for research as it has become clear that aberrant epigenetic control contributes to disease (particularly to cancer). Epigenetic alterations are heritable through cell division, and in some instances are able to behave similarly to mutations in terms of their stability. Importantly, unlike genetic mutations, epigenetic modifications are reversible and therefore have the potential to be manipulated therapeutically. It has also become clear in recent years that epigenetic modifications are sensitive to the environment (for example diet), which has sparked a large amount of public debate and research.

For an introduction into the science Dr. Marnie Blewitt as she introduces here course in Epigenetic Control of Gene Expression at The University of Melbourne.

As the old saying goes, the more you learn, the less you realize you know.  The science of truly understanding our human biology is expanding at an ever increasing rapid pace – see my prior post on the cost of processing a human genome.  The decrease in the cost of processing the huge amount amounts of data contained in the human genome corresponds with the development of Moore’s Law.

Moore’s Law is a computing term which originated around 1970; the simplified version of this law states that processor speeds, or overall processing power for computers will double every two years.

Only now is it possible to get closer to the root causes of our human biology.  Only now will be able to understand our biology from a cause and effect perspective at a molecular level.

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